Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Twitter argue transparency will encourage debate over surveillance powers
Britain needs to have a full public debate about the scale of internet surveillance to give confidence that state powers are not being abused, the world's five biggest internet companies have told MPs.
In a joint memo, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Twitter have called for the UK government to allow greater transparency about requests for them to hand over data on their users.
Their evidence to the home affairs select committee comes after the Guardian's revelations about the scale of mass surveillance by the security services in the US and UK based on leaked documents from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The files reveal that GCHQ has been tapping undersea fibre-optic cables to get access to vast quantities of internet traffic under its Tempora programme. They also disclose that the US National Security Agency has been collecting data directly from the servers of some internet companies, including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, although the firms deny this is done with their knowledge.
In their memo to MPs, the internet companies do not specifically mention the Snowden leaks but refer to growing public concern about surveillance issues.
"We recommend that requests for user data made by the UK government are made as transparent as possible," they say. "Each of our companies already publishes a transparency report and, as public concern grows around the world about the scale of digital surveillance, we believe that greater transparency is important in encouraging a full public debate and maintaining confidence that powers are not being abused."
It is signed by Emma Ascroft, the director of public policy at Yahoo! Europe; Becky Foreman, head of government affairs at Microsoft UK; Theo Bertram, public policy manager at Google UK; Sinead McSweeney, director of public policy for Europe at Twitter; and Simon Milner, director of public policy at Facebook UK.
Their comments echo calls for more transparency about state data requests in the US, where there has been a storm of political debate about the revelations and a series of follow-up investigations that have forced the Obama administration to consider reforms. Internet companies have been engaged in that US debate.
The UK authorities have been slower to respond and David Cameron has condemned the Guardian for endangering national security by publishing information from Snowden.
However, the first major inquiry into the extent of mass surveillance by GCHQ was formally launched on Thursday by parliament's intelligence and security committee (ISC).
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the committee chair, conceded that public concerns had to be addressed, saying: "There is a balance to be found between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security."
It comes four months after the Guardian and leading media groups in other countries, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, began disclosing details of secret surveillance programmes run by Britain's eavesdropping centre, GCHQ, and its US counterpart, the NSA. The Guardian has been urging a debate about Tempora and Prism.
In a change from its usual protocol, the normally secretive committee also announced that part of its inquiry would be held in public.
In addition to the ISC inquiry, the Commons home affairs select committee will mount an investigation into the issues raised by the Guardian disclosures. After a request from Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, the committee chaired by the Labour MP Keith Vaz will look into whether the newspaper has endangered national security and potentially broken the law, as part of its investigation into counter-terrorism.
The developments come after MPs and peers expressed concern that they were not told about the surveillance programmes while scrutinising the communications data bill, commonly known as the snooper's charter, which would have handed greater spying powers to the secret services.
The joint statement from Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! also contains a plea for the government not to introduce any more legislation on access to communications data until it has considered reforming international treaties that govern surveillance and law enforcement.
It suggests they remain opposed to any move to resurrect the communications data bill. Proposed laws handing greater internet surveillance powers to UK authorities were killed off by the Liberal Democrats this year but MPs and peers on a committee scrutinising the bill have warned that spies already appear to have access to this kind of data through the Tempora programme.
Resource Link : http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/18/internet-firms-uk-transparency-surveillance-facebook-google-twitter